Russian History

20140616 8731 sitka totem 2 headed eagle psrSitka is located on the west side of Baranof Island in Southeast Alaska (the “panhandle”), first occupied by the Tlingit native people more than 10,000 years ago.  In 1799 Russia established a community here to serve as a trading center for the Russian-American Company, in conflict with the Tlingits.  A Russian Orthodox church was built in 1842, and the parish of St. Michael is still active today.  The totem in the middle of town recognizes the Russian influence on the development of Sitka with the double-headed eagle among more traditional animals.

20140616 8768 sitka st michaels spires psrThe Russian Orthodox church looks small and modest on the outside, but inside it glitters with elaborate icons and church symbols.  The priest was warm, welcoming and informative, telling us about customs such as the lack of pews – the traditional Sunday service is 2 hours long and parishioners either stand or kneel.20140618 8775 sitka st michaels altar psrWe learned about the church’s icons and how much information they convey with facial expressions, position, gestures, etc.  In many cases they are rendered in 3-D by use of sculpted metal, except for a person’s skin.  They keep the images of people such as saints depicted in 2-D so they can not be worshiped as idols, which explains why the icon’s metalwork is cut out around hands and faces. 20140618 8769 sitka st michaels icon 1 psrA famous Russian Orthodox bishop was sent to be the Bishop of Alaska, headquartered in Sitka.  Bishop (now Saint) Innocent arrived sometime around 1840, and the church built a house for him that has now been restored by the National Park Service.  Innocent was interested in education, and he learned many languages of the various Alaskan native tribes – here in southeast, as well as the interior and out to the Aleutians.  He created dictionaries and translations for the Alaskan people, as well as scholarly works about Alaskans.  He had a deep respect for the Alaskan native cultures, and felt that their customs and beliefs did not conflict with the teachings of his church.  He was widely loved for his open mind and kind heart, and many natives were drawn to the church because of the spirit of inclusiveness created by Bishop Innocent.

Chapel - Russian Bishop's House

Chapel – Russian Bishop’s House

We were relaxing on the seawall after touring around town one afternoon, and Jim happened to be wearing a sweatshirt from the University of Utah.  Two gals walked up to us and asked us about the shirt, and we told them that we went to the U for grad school.  We got a big high-5 from one of the gals – she is a fellow “Ute”, and the other gal admitted that she was from Brigham Young University – a “Cougar”, arch rival of the Utah Utes.  We had a lot of laughs with them, and it’s always so nice to talk with other humans.  They described some of their lives as Mormon (LDS) missionaries, and some of the rules they live by can be a little like our lifestyle on the boat in remote places… so we had some more laughs about that.  We promised to blog about these two lovely gals – Ali and Paige – thanks for making our day!  (We loved the appropriateness of the sign…)20140618 8800 sitka lds gals psrThe next day we took a longer walk to visit the Alaska Raptor Center – a rescue and rehabilitation facility for eagles, owls, and other types of hawks.  It’s a terrific facility, with birds that are healing and expected to be released that are kept in an area that insulates them from humans.  There is also a small population of permanent resident birds that have injuries or conditions that prevent them from being able to survive in the wild.20140619 8898 sitka raptor center steve and eagle psr20140619 8900 sitka raptor center talons psrThis is Steve, a full-time expert who works with the various birds, holding Hallie, an eagle with a beak defect that would be fatal in the wild.  It was wonderful to get so close to this magnificent bird and to learn more about them.  I would not want to be on the receiving end of those talons!

We ended up talking with Steve about different birds for quite a while when we first met him near the outdoor enclosure for the two resident ravens.  Ravens are very smart, and they like shiny things.  Apparently wild ravens often visit, trading various shiny things with the residents.  Ravens also have a large number of vocalizations, and we learned that there are dialects of raven sounds, passed on from parents to children.  The whole experience was really interesting, and we enjoyed seeing some different owls and hawks up close.  It’s sad that they are not releasable, but they have a good home and the love and care for the birds is obvious.20140619 8902 sitka raptor steve and hallie psrWalking back to the boat we loved to look at the flowers in everyone’s gardens.  With the long hours of sunshine (most of the time!) flowers grow very big here.20140619 8857 orange anemone closeup psrThere’s such a variety of flowers from the huge showy anemones as well as the delicate bleeding hearts.20140619 8866 bleeding hearts flowers psrAnd just to complete the bird theme for the day, Jim spotted this red-bellied sapsucker for me.20140619 8844 red breasted sap sucker face psr

Solstice in Sitka

Yesterday was the Summer Solstice – the longest day of the year.  Up in this latitude there is over 18 hours between sunrise and sunset, and it’s light well before sunrise and after sunset for a total of about 20 hours of daylight.  Now the days will start getting shorter – today will be 16 seconds shorter than yesterday.  We’ll pay the price for all this daylight in December and January!

We arrived in Sitka earlier in the week after wiggling through the twists and turns of Peril Strait, which only had a few spots that we might consider “perilous”.  20140616 8718 sitka eliason psr harborAs we were maneuvering into a slip I lost the ability to control the port transmission – but luckily we were moving slowly and I had just enough room to adjust to having only one engine.  It turned out that the little retaining clip connecting the control cable to the transmission came off – easily fixed afterwards, but unpleasantly exciting at the time.

Sitka is another serious fishing town, and the commercial boats have been very active in the harbor, making repairs, loading nets, and generally getting ready for opening day for the various kinds of fish.  The dominant type of boat here is the purse seiner.20140619 8820 sitka purse seiner psrSeiners set out a large net drawn out across the water by a small tender.  After a certain amount of time the tender draws the end of the net in an arc back towards the big boat, while the bottom of the net is drawn together – creating a “purse” that encloses the fish.20140616 8745 sitka purse seiner and small boat psrThe nets need a bit of maintenance and repair, and the crews have been keeping busy.20140618 8776 sitka fixing purse seine net psr20140619 8824 sitka cg helo psrNearby is a Coast Guard Station with helicopters and a 226′ buoy tender.  The station here has been featured in a number of episodes of the Weather Channel’s “Coast Guard Alaska”, and we see and hear the helicopters every day.  These folks are real heroes, providing a vital emergency medic and air evacuation service for the fishing fleet and the remote communities around here.

As far as wildlife goes, this place feels like an NFL game – ravens and eagles everywhere!  Ravens and bald eagles here are like seagulls in other places, perched on light poles (we have to be careful walking back to the dock), perched on church steeples, boat masts, and gamboling around the skies calling to each other.  We constantly stop to watch the eagles swooping and fishing.  We did see one bear in town, but he looked pretty harmless…20140616 8758 sitka stuffed bear psrEvidently, they let just about anyone drive in Sitka…20140619 8827 dog driving van psr20140619 8830 dog driving van face psrI had to stay up pretty late to get a sunset photo, and we don’t get to do much stargazing these days.  The good news is that it will be easy to stargaze in the winter, even before dinnertime.20140618 8808 sitka sunset 2 psr

Whales, Waterfalls and Wildflowers

20140612 8554 baranof falls psrAlthough we arrived to a nearly empty dock at Warm Springs Bay, the activity picked up quite a bit starting a few hours later.  First we had a massive commercial fishing “buy boat” – 95′ long by 32′ wide – dock right behind us while I was reading in the cockpit, blocking my nice view of the waterfall.  Fortunately they only stayed for a few hours to fill water tanks and go for a quick soak in the geothermal pool.  Then a few cruising boats arrived along with a commercial troller with a very nice young couple aboard.  Another buy boat anchored out in the bay, and a few trollers lined up to tie to the buy boat and offload their catch – there was plenty of action to keep us busy.  This is one of the salmon trollers anchored nearby.20140612 8586 troller warm springs bay psrJim was sitting in the pilothouse and looked up to see a humpback right in front of the boat – he had to have come under our boat in order to surface so close – WOW!  Jim shouted to the people on the dock and we all scrambled and grabbed cameras, and eventually the whale made a slow circuit of the inner bay20140530 8154 humpback dorsal  RESIZE, disappearing for periods of time, and then it appeared and cruised along right next to our boat – no more than 5′ off our beam.  It all happened so quickly that we didn’t get any photos of the close action.  Normally when someone calls “whale!” I grab my camera with the long lens.  For this encounter, I needed wide angle.


We ended up having a fun time talking with the other cruisers on the dock, and with the beautiful weather someone had the idea for a “docktail” party.  The wife on the salmon troller is a Native Alaskan, and she brought herring eggs as an appy.  The herring will lay their eggs on anything, so natives stick fir branches in the water and the herring will lay their eggs on them.  I think they’re boiled or steamed in some way, and you eat them right off the evergreen branches.  Not for me – I’m not a seafood person, but people found them interesting.

We asked one of the charter boat captains for suggestions of other favorite coves and bays in the area, and he suggested Takatz Bay only 5 miles farther north.  What a great suggestion – it’s a gorgeous place.20140613 8601 entering takatz psr  Just as we turned to head into the long, narrow bay we saw whales blowing right along the north shoreline.  We had to pay attention to navigation since there was a charted rock in the middle of the entrance channel to avoid, but we were grabbing binoculars and watching the whales as much as the chart.  The whales were “lunge feeding”, where they seemed to be herding schools of herring up against the sheer shoreline and then lunging with open mouths to scoop them up.  We hurried to get the boat anchored in the protected back part of the bay, got the dinghy in the water, and grabbed cameras to zoom back out to watch the whales feeding.  We kept a respectful distance from them, but we ran the dinghy (“Beastie”) out to the mouth of the bay and then shut the motor off to drift quietly on the incoming tide.  The whales put on quite a show – we drifted with them for about 30 minutes and were surprised at how close to the shore they were.20140613 8537 takatz whale mouth psrEventually the tide started to change and the herring moved out into Chatham Strait.  We ventured farther out to watch for a little longer, and then the whales waved goodbye.20140613 8550 takatz whale high five psrWe zoomed back to ADVENTURES, anchored next to a waterfall and surrounded by huge granite cliffs – we have the anchorage all to ourselves.20140614 8606 adventures in takatz bay psr20140614 8638 chocolate lily psr


It was rainy and misty for the two days we spent in Takatz, but it never rained hard and I was able to kayak every day for several hours.  I found a lot of interesting geology – tiger-striped rocks with layers folded upon layers where different materials were trapped in molten rock and shaped as the rock cooled.  There were also a lot of wildflowers along the shoreline, such as scarlet paintbrush, subalpine daisy, shooting star, and the unusual (for me) chocolate lily.  I also love the color and bushy look of the new growth on the Sitka spruce trees…

20140614 8623 sitka spruce growth psrThe second day we headed back out in the dinghy to try and see whales feeding again when the tide was flooding, but all we saw was a salmon troller anchored off to the side.  The fishing has been very slow so far this season, and the commercial fishermen are pretty frustrated.

Red Bluff and Warm Springs Bays

I’m finding Alaska to be very frustrating as a photographer – there doesn’t seem to be a good way to capture the “big-ness”  or the details of the landscape in a photograph.  Red Bluff Bay is a great example – there’s a huge roaring waterfall, a large “bear meadow”, snow-capped mountains in the background, and a massive granite bowl with little silvery ribbons of waterfalls across its face.  It is breathtakingly beautiful.20140611 8457 red bluff bay reflection psrThe picture can’t even come close, and of course it doesn’t convey the sounds of the birds or the chill of the wind that funnels down the waterfalls.20140611 8462 adventures red bluff waterfall psrWe read that at high tide the creek was passable up to a lake so we headed out in the dinghy.  As we were slowly (and carefully – it’s a shallow creek) making our way up, we noticed a brown bear munching the tall grass near the shore.  He glanced at us now and then, but kept on munching so we gradually eased closer towards the shore.  After a little while the bear gave us a steady look, so we backed off and gave him more space.20140610 8378 brown bear grass looking psrLater on we were talking with the captain of one of the charter boats and he said that the bear’s stare meant that we were making him nervous, and that the bear’s next move would have been to run away if we hadn’t backed off.  They are amazing creatures to watch.  We had another good show while we were fixing dinner – this time we saw a Sitka black-tailed deer on the shore of the meadow, and he noticed a brown bear come out of the forest and amble along the shoreline.  We watched them for about 15 minutes, the bear sniffing the air now and then, and the deer keeping a sharp eye on the bear.  Eventually they all trotted off into the woods and we were able to finish cooking.

20140610 8365 trumpeter swan psrThere was plenty of other wildlife in the bay to keep us entertained – a trumpeter swan, river otter, seals chasing schools of herring in our little cove, mergansers, harlequin ducks, eagles and ravens twirling in the sky… a fairly typical day in SE Alaska, I think.

With so many bays and coves to explore, we had to force 20140611 8483 nat geo sea lion bow psrourselves to leave – more adventures await.  As we were cruising past the big waterfall, we had to pause to let the National Geographic Sea Lion come through the narrows – they could only spend an hour in the Bay that we hated to leave after several days.  I had to laugh:  they were taking pictures of us as we were taking pictures of them.

Our next stop was Warm Springs Bay, also on the east side of Baranof Island.  There is a public float and a handful of houses, part of the Borough of Sitka (13 miles away, on the other side of a 4000′ mountain).  The interesting features are the roaring waterfall, lake full of cutthroat trout, a river, and geothermal hot springs.20140611 8489 baranof warm springs wide view psrOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe houses are connected by a boardwalk, and the town has constructed a little public bath house with three booths, each with a huge metal tub, and a valve controlling the flow of 105+ degree water piped down from the hot springs.  The booths have a door on the boardwalk side, and an opening on the water side with a view of the waterfalls.  It’s a great way to relax and enjoy a soak, though it took a while for the water to cool off enough to sit in comfortably. The baths are visited by cruising boats like ours, charter boats, people from the local fishing lodge, as well as commercial fishermen who stop to fill their fresh water tanks and go for a soak.  The fresh water hose on the dock is left running – it’s insignificant compared to the amount of water coming from the waterfall, but it’s very disconcerting to see any water left running when you’re a boater with a limited supply.

The other way to enjoy the hot springs is to hike up into the woods and visit the natural pools, which are right next to the top of the waterfall.  You just can’t beat the setting, though you can’t soak for long since the water is so hot.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe hiked around to explore the first day, and returned for a nice soak on the second day… a unique experience.  The bear scat next to the trail reminded us to talk loudly while we soaked.  I didn’t see any bear hair in the pools, so I don’t think the bears like hot tubs… a very good thing.20140612 8493 natures hot tub psr